Wild Profile: Meet the mayfly

Adult mayfly on a green leaft By bt_photo/Shutterstock

Lake country has more than 160 mayfly species, a.k.a., one of the most ancient creatures on earth. Mayflies first appeared 350 million years ago, before cockroaches, dragonflies, and dinosaurs. And as the temperature heats up in June, you’ll see them: clouds of six-legged, clear-winged, multi-tailed bugs swarming around lights or congregating on the sides of buildings. Freaky! But a sure sign of cottage season.

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Mayflies (or shadflies) spend most of their lives—twelve months, tops—as underwater nymphs. Their lightning-fast transformation into adulthood occurs soon after they congregate at the edge of the water. They fling themselves, as a group, into the air, shedding their skins and unfolding their wings in about 10 seconds. Mayflies are the only flying insects that become airborne before they’ve lost their exoskeletons. Mayfly adults—assuming they aren’t eaten by fish during transformation—only live for one or two days. They mate (it takes 30 seconds); lay eggs (about an hour later); then promptly die. Unlike dragonflies, the keen hunters of the bug world, mayflies don’t exist long enough to eat anything at all. What a life.

Although mayfly swarms are disgusting—they’ll probably fly into your hair; you’ll step on their carcasses—the bugs don’t sting, bite, or attack. Plus, if you’ve got mayflies near your lake, you have the nymphs in your water. And that’s great news; mayflies, like stoneflies and caddisflies, are a “bioindicator” species. Scientists use them to measure water quality. Lots of nymphs mean a lake or river is clean and healthy.

Dragonflies love them some human contact! Check out these 8 amazing photos of dragonflies landing on people.



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